The present debate about the future of our external inspection service is a defining one for our school system. The danger is that it diverts us from focusing on how we enable schools to develop talent and capacity so that they have the means to sustain their own improvement. Procedural changes and ditching the ‘one-word’ grade summary of school performance are not enough.
What we need is an entirely new paradigm of school improvement and accountability. The traditional orthodoxy surrounding school improvement and inspection is simply no longer fit for purpose. We need to strike a better balance between enabling and empowering school leaders and accountability and compliance.
In England, the thinking around the turn of the century regarding how schools were supported was reasonably consistent across most political persuasions. Central government would be the main player, not local government. It would set the standards and the approach, and these would change with every new government.
The emphasis was on a rapid quick-fix approach to school and college improvement. By design, intervention was provided in ‘inverse proportion to success’ with the ‘most successful’ receiving no support at all. ‘Naming and shaming’ was a declared policy, the assumption being that some school leaders would only change in response to fear and coercive tactics. Behind these mantras was a free-market view that competition between schools and colleges would lead to improvement.
The result has been an increasing focus on structural change: change the governance, the leaders and even the name of the school and this will naturally lead to improvement. Judgments that are primarily based on previous test and examination results and external inspection reports are designed to identify schools in difficulty, and these are provided with an imposed road map to lead them out of their problems.
The forced academisation order on the basis of a single grade is the perfect example of the simplistic nature of this approach to school improvement. But it is only the latest manifestation of the same dogma: Those who are identified to provide support are selected not on the basis of their professional expertise but whether their institution itself has a good external inspection report (whether or not the report is the result of their own professional input).
The mantra that ‘good leaders make good advisers’ is rarely challenged, even though the skillset and knowledge required for both roles are very different.
This entire paradigm has lost credibility, and the growing clamour for rethinking Ofsted marks a fundamental shift in our thinking about how we support and enable our schools to develop and improve. The problems with leaving supposedly ‘outstanding’ schools to their own devices lay bare this system’s shortcomings.
The focus should be on self-sustained improvement for all schools with enabling and capacity building at the core of our accountability system. We need to support the skills and knowledge of every school leader to develop all aspects of school provision.
Whether Ofsted’s existence has helped to create the culture we have now or not, the fact is that today’s school leaders welcome and invite challenge. They would like to be recognised as professionals who want to learn and improve rather than treated as empty vessels that need to be filled with quick-fix solutions. They don’t need fear; They need improvement associates they can trust.
This is the core reason why key educational organisations have given their support for the establishment of the Association of Educational Advisers’ independent quality standard for those who support and advise schools and colleges.
There is growing recognition that those who support and advise schools should develop a transactional agreement with schools and colleges, in which they agree on what they both wish to achieve. Likewise, the notion of basing intervention on performance data or inspection findings is being dismissed in favour of a deep analysis of the causal factors of success and failure.
These are not signs of a profession shirking accountability but fully embracing it in the name of progress for their schools and our education system. And that seems to me like the sort of evidence of improvement policy makers should be embracing, not dismissing.